“There’s no evidence to suggest it is more lethal or causes more severe illness,” Johnson said, or that vaccines will be less effective against it.

Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo said Sunday said he was issuing the flight ban for 24 hours starting at midnight “out of precaution.”

“There are a great many questions about this new mutation and if it is not already on the mainland,” he said. He hoped to have more clarity by Tuesday.

The World Health Organization tweeted that, “We’re in close contact with UK officials on the new #COVID19 virus variant.” It promised to update governments and the public as more is learned about this variant.

The new strain of coronavirus was identified in south-eastern England in September and has been circulating in the area since, a WHO official told the BBC on Sunday.

“What we understand is that it does have increased transmissibility, in terms of its ability to spread,” said Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO’s technical lead on COVID-19.

Studies are under way to better understand how fast it spreads and and whether “it’s related to the variant itself, or a combination of factors with behaviour,” she said.

She said the strain had also been identified in Denmark, the Netherlands and Australia, where there was one case that did not spread further.

“The longer this virus spreads, the more opportunities it has to change,” she said. “So we really need to do everything we can right now to prevent spread, and minimising that spread will reduce the chances of it changing.”

Susan Hopkins of Public Health England said that while the variant has been circulating since September, it wasn’t until this week that officials felt they had enough evidence to declare that it has higher transmissibility than other circulating viruses.

The strain has spread to other parts of the UK but in smaller amounts than in London and surrounding areas, she told the BBC.

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Germany has not yet spelled out a ban but is considering limiting or halting flights from the UK as well, the dpa news agency reported. A high-ranking German official told dpa that restrictions on flights from Britain are a “serious option.”

The Czech Republic announced that all people arriving in the country who spent at least 24 hours on British territory during the last two weeks have to isolate as of this Sunday.

Germany, which holds the rotating presidency of the 27-nation EU, was in contact with its neighbours and was following all developments about the new variant closely, dpa reported.

Europe has been walloped this fall by soaring new infections and deaths due to a resurgence of the virus, and many nations have reimposed a series of restrictions to reign in their outbreaks.

Britain has seen over 67,000 deaths in the pandemic, the second-highest confirmed toll in Europe after Italy.

Johnson on Saturday closed all non-essential shops, hairdressers, gyms and pools and told Britons to reorganise their holiday plans. No mixing of households is now allowed indoors in Tier 4 areas, including London, and only essential travel is permitted into and out of such areas. In the rest of England, people will be allowed to meet in Christmas bubbles for just one day instead of the five that were planned.

AP

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